Not unlike many other large and expensive Washington institutions, last year's Nationals were curiously ineffective. The team failed to make the postseason, finishing 10 games behind the Braves in the National League East.
But it's tough to imagine the Nats struggling again in 2014. This is a team without glaring weaknesses, a clear contender to make a deep October run. Washington's batting order is loaded, the starting rotation is outstanding, and the bullpen is both deep and talented. This group grades out well defensively, too. The Nats shouldn't have a difficult time topping last year's win total (86). They may not reach 98 wins, as they did in 2012, but they'll be damn good. Offseason acquisitions Doug Fister and Nate McLouth will surely help.
Honestly, this team is facing very few significant, worrisome questions — whether we're talking fantasy or reality. If a few key players can simply remain healthy, the Nats will be excellent. So let's begin with a couple of medical charts...
Q: Is Bryce Harper semi-healthy? Should he really be a first-round fantasy pick?
A: Harper was limited to 118 games last season, sidelined by knee and hip issues. A brutal collision with the right field wall at Dodger Stadium in May was the source of a few problems. Harper underwent a surgical procedure in November to address his left knee injury, and, in the words of his manager, "he is a full-go for spring training."
Early fantasy drafters are taking Harper near the turn picks, at the back end of Round 1, which of course means we're paying for a level of production he's never actually delivered. That's always a dangerous game. Still, if you were to take Harper's 2013 level of production and give him another 30-35 games, the results would have been stellar. Remember, this is a guy who gave us 22 homers and a .270/.340/.477 slash while swiping 18 bags in 2012 ... when he was 19. So if you're tempted to pay an expectant price with Bryce, I get it. His ceiling, whatever it might be, is fun to contemplate.
Q: And what's the story with Stephen Strasburg's elbow? He had offseason surgery too, yes?
A: Yup, Strasburg had bone chips removed from his elbow in October, which has to be viewed as a red flag. Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, later noted that the right-hander pitched through discomfort last season. The hope, obviously, is that the offseason surgical procedure will allow for a pain-free 2014. Strasburg has been full of sunshine in recent weeks, apparently 100 percent recovered. So that's good to hear. When he's right, he's nearly unhittable. The man's career ratios are ridiculous: 10.4 K/9, 4.1 BB/K, 1.07 WHIP, 2.96 ERA.
If it weren't for the multiple elbow procedures (and the fact that he's never topped 183 innings in any season), I could make an argument for Strasburg as the No. 2 overall player at his position. Even with those worries, he's top-five on my board. He's a strikeout machine tied to a winning team, and he does his pitching in the friendlier league. There's risk associated with any pitcher; your potential reward with Strasburg is massive.
Q: OK, we've discussed the top of the rotation. What's going on at the bottom? Who's the Nats' fifth starter, and will that guy have any fantasy value?
A: The competition for the fifth starter's role is one of the few legit position battles on this team — and yes, the winner is going have value, at least in N.L.-only formats. Taylor Jordan, Ross Detwiler and Tanner Roark are the contestants in this fight. To me, Roark seems like the early favorite, because he was so damn good in August and September last season. The 27-year-old righty went 7-1 in the closing months, posting a 0.91 WHIP and 1.51 ERA (2.41 FIP), striking out 40 batters in 53.1 innings and walking only 11. Detwiler is returning from a back injury, but presumably healthy again. Jordan suffered a broken ankle in the offseason, though it sounds as if he's good to go as well.
Again, whoever claims the fifth starting spot for this team will have modest deep league appeal, at least as a spot-starter. Pay attention to the spring stats here.
Q: Is Anthony Rendon locked in at second base? Is that a done deal?
A: Officially? No. Rendon is competing with Danny Espinosa, according to manager Matt Williams. But you might recall that Espinosa was a wreck last season, both in the big leagues and at Triple-A, so it's tough to think of him as a serious threat. He's a bit, um ... contact-challenged.
Rendon, 23, has to be considered the clear favorite to win the second base gig, and he showed plenty of promise during his first season in the majors. I'm not sure he'll ever be a high-end fantasy asset in standard leagues, because he looks like a guy with doubles-power who won't steal many bases. But Rendon demonstrated serious on-base skills in the minors (.408 OBP), so he has the potential to score a significant number of runs while driving in plenty. For now, think of him as a respectable late-round MI. He can certainly deliver Neil Walker-ish value.